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No.174 (10/22/10)

Okutsugaru where the culture and the nature fuse

By Keiko H Johnson
Staff Writer

When the snow and the freezing wind from Japan Sea strike down on the land of Okutsugaru region, the ski resorts in the area thrive with snow boarders and skiers. The excellent powder snow is well known fact of this winter resort that many service members residing in Misawa AFB may have already visited the area during winter. The region is also famous for their apple harvests. It is amazing to see the apple trees with blooming flowers, while the ground is covered with snow. An untamed rural land where the tradition of horticultural living and the heavy snow are the pictures I envisioned before I saw the liveliness of Neputa festival and the magnificent view of Mt. Iwaki this summer.

At the northwestern corner of Aomori, there is an area called Okutsugaru. The region consists of 7cities including the cities of Itayanagi, Tsuruta, Goshogawara, Nakadomari, Tsugaru, Ajigasawa, and Fukaura. The area is embraced by the great nature of Shirakami Moutain world heritage site to the west, and selected views of Mt. Iwaki to the south. To the northwest of the region lays the Japan Sea, edging the island of Honshuu and the northernmost island of Japan: Hokkaido.

It was the first week of August, when my family and I visited the region. We set our camp at the Nagahira Shonen travelers' village in Ajigasawa town and indulged ourselves in the vast nature. It boasts a clean and well-equipped campsite that has both cabins and tent grounds to stay. The log cabin has main bedroom, dining area, kitchen, bath and the loft with spare beds. It is one of the great places to stay for those who are not fond to stay in the tent. The shower booth, restrooms and kitchen equipped within the amenity area are easily accessible for those who are camping outside in the tent. The other amenities exist within its compounds; such as, a roller slide, indoor tree climbing facility, and outdoor pizza oven allow camping to be more enchanting and enriching than it would normally be. The BBQ tools, including the grill and charcoal are provided upon request of the guests for free of charge.

At the end of the day, while I was walking to enjoy a quiet night in the darkness, I spotted a small light moving in the air. As I walked on following the sound of the stream, the quantity of sparkles increased. The clear stream runs through the area is a nursery to the fireflies, which illuminated the darkness of the night like Christmas time. The fireflies are only seen in limited areas in Japan, where the melted snow from the mountains fill the creeks and streams with the pure water, which contain ample minerals that contributes to nurture high quality of crops, fruits, and the precious insects as fireflies. Okutsugatu is one of those areas saturated with nature's gifts.

Our destination on the second day of our trip was Mt. Iwaki: one of the admired mountains among hikers in Japan. Mt. Iwaki is also called Tsugaru Fuji from its magnificent appearance. After long severe winter, striking views of the nature hidden beneath the thick snow floor reveals its priceless beauty. The emerging new lives coming out on the ground surface attract campers and Mt. climbers throughout the summer. This volcanic cone arising at the southern part of the Tsugaru domain stands at the 1,625 meter above sea level. The stark rocky appearance of the volcanic crater you see at the top of this sacred mountain is breath taking.

Among many of the trails leading you to the top of the mountain, the one that sits on the southern slope of the mountain by the Iwaki Shrine is the most accessible trail to take. Every Mt. Iwaki climbers visit the shrine before they step into the domain of the sacred shrine for spiritual reason. Climbers pledge to respect the mountain, raise their alertness and pray for their safe returns. The paved toll road leads to the 7th station of the mountain for driving is the shortest route to reach the top. Park the car at the end of the toll road and take a chair lift to the 8th station. From there, it will be a 20 minutes walk to the top.

After a long day of climbing Mt. Iwaki, we stopped at Dake Onsen Spa resort located at the foot of the mountain. The still active volcano to some degree, the Mt. Iwaki produces plentiful of natural hot springs to heal those fatigued. The smell of sulfur tickled my nose, but sitting in the steamy hot bath was the best remedy to thaw the tenseness I felt on my feet.

On the way home from the region, we visited the Tachineputa summer festival in Goshogawara town. At the parade, you see countless floats, each of them as tall as the 3-story building, stroll through the town.

As the sun went down and the darkness of the night approached, the floats are illuminated and revealed the detail of artworks, which promoted their powerful features. A float is created annually, following the Chinese twelve zodiac sign. This year's float included the design of a peasant and a tiger that came into the parade at the end. The glowing eyes of peasants and the figure of roaring tiger, staring down at the congregations beneath, were so lively and prevailing. At the back of each float, groups of people dressed in festival outfits specially designed for the parade danced along with the beat of Taiko drums and small tambourines.

Finally, thinking back the time we visited the region, I cannot deny that the summer in Okutsugaru was so lovely that it was nothing like I ever imagined. The traditional summer events as well as the beauty of the nature the Mt Iwaki contributes were so gripping. Our trip to the region was one of the valuable and memorable events of the summer.

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